Leroy Schluter remembers attending a local high school basketball game in 1998, shortly after he moved from St. Louis back to his east central Illinois roots. The 1985 Armstrong High School graduate saw some of the same officials who used to work his high school games.
“I talked to the coaches afterwards,” Schluter said, “and the problem that exists today existed back then: there was a shortage of officials.”
So Schluter joined the ranks. And hasn’t looked back, either, in the subsequent 22 years. Among the more veteran and respected high school basketball referees in the area, Schluter has worked two IHSA girls’ basketball state tournaments, most recently helping officiate the Class 1A state championship game in 2019.
The Sidney resident fondly recalls the most recent high school game he officiated, too. A thrilling 50-49 win by Joliet Catholic against Paxton-Buckley-Loda in a Class 2A boys’ basketball sectional semifinal game in Pontiac on March 4.
A week later, the world changed.
Eight months later, COVID-19 rages on, putting the high school basketball season taking place this winter in Illinois in serious doubt. Affecting everyone from players to coaches to whole communities. And yes, even those wearing white-and-black striped shirts who fans aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure with in regards to certain calls. What we all wouldn’t give, Schluter likely included, to witness some back and forth dialogue between officials and an upset coach. In person.
“It would not surprise me if we don’t play at all for the 2020-21 season, especially with fall and winter coming upon us and more people coming indoors,” Schluter said. “Cases are going up and not going away.”
Schluter is also the Illini Basketball Officials Association president and said several referees have indicated to him that if there is some sort of season this winter, they’ll opt out because of health concerns.
“We totally respect that,” Schluter said. “But it’s a scheduling nightmare. We’re all independent contractors, in a way, and we typically make our own schedule of games we work. You go through a series of highs and lows because one day, you get false hope that we might be playing, but then the next day it gets shot down.”
Schluter has gone over the guidance the IHSA issued if basketball were to potentially happen during the pandemic — no jump balls to start the game, switching out and cleaning basketballs during the game and working with an electronic whistle. Referees would not be required to wear a mask when the game is actually going on — unlike the players — but will need to have a face covering at every other opportunity when they are inside a gymnasium.
“For us, the masks would be irrelevant and not a big deal at all,” Schluter said. “I know, for the kids, too, just to be on the floor and playing basketball again would be well worth it.”
Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at email@example.com.